Columbia’s president, no stranger to complex challenges, walks tightrope on student protests

Minouche Shafik, president of Columbia University, is no stranger to navigating complex international issues, having worked at some of the world’s most prominent financial institutions.

At the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, for example, she tackled both the European debt crisis and the Arab Spring.

However, it remains to be seen whether her experience with world conflict has equipped her sufficiently to deal with the thorny challenges she faces amid the ongoing student protests over the war between Israel and Hamas.

“The reason you’re protesting is to draw attention to an issue,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education. “And you do that by questioning the normal course of events. It is not a problem to be solved, but a tension to be managed.”

The task ahead – balancing the demands of students, teachers and politicians – is also a reflection of how complex university governance has become in this day and age, when universities’ footprints have continued to expand, observers say . And it reflects the experience of a growing number of university leaders who, like Shafik, come from non-academic backgrounds.

So far, it doesn’t seem like anyone is happy with Shafik’s responses to the protests that started in Columbia last week.

Her decision to ask New York City police to intervene, resulting in the arrest of more than a hundred protesters, only served to motivate the demonstrators, who quickly regrouped—and other students on campuses across the country to inspire.

Shafik initially appeared to have weathered criticism from Republican lawmakers, who expressed growing concerns about anti-Semitism on college campuses. She struck a more conciliatory tone toward the House Education and Workforce Committee than the presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, who were forced to resign after being widely criticized for emphasizing protections for the freedom of expression during their appearances before the same panel.

But Columbia’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors reacted angrily to her testimony in Congress, accusing her of capitulating to the demands of lawmakers who they said had committed “defamatory attacks” on faculty and students. The AAUP filed a motion of censure against Shafik. While it does not call for her resignation and is largely symbolic, it reflects the intensity of campus anger over her actions.

And now the lawmakers are piling in again.

Republicans in New York’s delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter Monday urging Shafik to resign. They said she had failed to provide a safe learning environment in recent days as “anarchy has engulfed the campus.” During a visit to Columbia Wednesday, Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson called on Shafik to resign “if she cannot bring order to this chaos.”

In a written statement to Congress prior to her personal testimony, Shafik described a childhood in Egypt and then the Southeast, when schools were desegregated, and said those experiences gave her the skills needed “to cope with and learn from people with a wide range of skills. backgrounds and experience overcoming discrimination firsthand.”

But that may not be enough; Shafik’s position at Columbia also appears to require a fair amount of political finesse.

It’s not just that she must try to balance the principles of free speech and academic freedom with creating a safe environment on campus. Like other university presidents today, she is also charged with balancing the pillars of shared governance among the faculty, board and administration, said Katherine Cho, an assistant professor of higher education at Loyola University Chicago.

“Often all three groups have different ideas about what the college is and how well the president does their job… and the president may have a different definition of what they think is successful,” Cho said.

When she arrived at Columbia last year, Shafik was the first woman to take on the role of president and one of several women recently appointed to lead Ivy League institutions.

Her experience in the financial industry, rather than in academia, puts her in line with more and more university leaders from non-faculty backgrounds.

After obtaining her master’s degree from the London School of Economics, she obtained her PhD from the University of Oxford. She rose through the ranks of the World Bank, eventually becoming the bank’s youngest-ever vice president.

Shafik also worked at the UK Department for International Development, followed by stints at the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England, before taking over as director of the London School of Economics.

At the time of Shafik’s appointment, Jonathan Lavine, chair of the Columbia Board of Trustees, described her as a leader who deeply understood “the academy and the world beyond.”

“What distinguished Minouche as a candidate,” Lavine said in a statement, “is her unwavering confidence in the critical role that higher education institutions can and must play in solving the world’s most complex problems.”

Shafik also cited her international experience as fundamental to her leadership at Columbia in her testimony before lawmakers.

“These experiences have shown me that education is the most powerful tool to make our communities and our world a better place,” she said in her written statement. “And amid these challenging times, I believe it is important for the Columbia community to realize the powerful impact of our core educational mission.”


The Associated Press’ education coverage receives funding from several private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s Standards for Working with Charities, a list of supporters, and funded coverage areas at